Reimagined Production of Side Show Continues to Take Shape; Bill Russell Chats About the Musical's Next Steps

By Adam Hetrick
26 Dec 2013

Emily Padgett and Erin Davie
Photo by Kevin Berne

How did La Jolla audiences respond to this new version? Side Show in New York was one of those shows that really captured many theatregoers and quickly developed a devoted fan base.
BR: The audiences were just fantastic — they were so into it. People are so moved by this show. The cast says that they considered the best audience they had was a morning matinee for high school students. They said it was just electric. They did that performance a couple weeks into the run, so a lot of high school kids started coming. They heard about it from their friends, and that was exciting. I always felt that if there was any time you felt like a freak, it was high school. I've always felt that high school kids related to this show. It was thrilling that we were able to reach them.

You've said before, on paper, a musical about conjoined twins isn't the easiest sell to the ticket-buying public.
BR: It's always a bit of a hard sell. Some people are really turned off by the idea of the "Siamese twins," or sideshow attractions. They say, "Oh, I don't want to see a show about that.” But once they're there, they really come around. La Jolla has a large subscription audience, and they really embraced it.

Did you use La Jolla audiences and their reactions to help guide you on what was working with this new version? Were there talkbacks?
BR: Yes, we had a couple talkbacks, which were very helpful, but we got a lot of feedback filtered through a lot of different people. Of course, the Playhouse staff, their patrons tell them things, and we read the reviews. We also have a lot of our own ideas, and we're going to definitely make changes for Washington. But we learned so much doing this, because, for one thing, it's a whole new [show]. The ensemble tracks are very different [new characters have been added]. That's one thing that's very hard to figure out in advance. You get in the room and realize that this person has to make a costume change so we can't have them onstage in this number. Those kinds of things became much clearer over the run, so we're going to make some adjustments that way.

There's a significant amount of new material for this version of Side Show. Did all of it work, or will some of it go?
BR: Some of it is probably going to go. We learned a lot. It wasn't always so much about how audiences reacted to it, more like how we were feeling about the material. The material was landing really well. We have this flashback sequence that audiences are really responding to, back to their childhood. I've always said that the hardest part about writing about the Hilton sisters is that they led such dramatic lives that it's hard to know what to leave out. It was nice to be able to explore their childhood a little bit.

What are your goals for the Kennedy Center engagement?
BR: We just want to improve on what we have. We are going to be doing some rewriting, as well as [implementing] some new design changes we want to make. There's going to be a larger orchestra there, so that has to be taken care of. It's so great that we have this next step, and it's great that we have this break now so that we have this time to work on it. Henry and I were talking at the closing about all the changes we were planning to make and continue to make throughout the progress. And, I said, "At least we're not doing this in Boston!"

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David St. Louis (center) with Emily Padgett, Erin Davie and the cast
Photo by Kevin Berne